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Vladimir Putin: The Man, the State, the Destiny

© RIA Novosti . Ilya Pitalev / Go to the mediabankVladimir Putin: The Man, the State, the Destiny
Vladimir Putin: The Man, the State, the Destiny - Sputnik International
It was a transition of power more unexpected than most and one that would shape Russia’s destiny for the next decade and beyond.

It was a transition of power more unexpected than most and one that would shape Russia’s destiny for the next decade and beyond. On the evening of December 31, 1999, an ailing President Boris Yeltsin resigned in favor of his young prime minister, Vladimir Putin. As the world got ready to greet the new millennium, Putin addressed Russians as national leader for the first time.

“Like you, I intended this evening to listen to the New Year greetings of President Boris Yeltsin,” Putin told an audience of millions. “But things turned out otherwise.”

Fate had thrown the one-time KGB officer and ex-head of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) a spectacular hand. But few, if any, would have suspected then that Putin would remain the country’s dominant politician for the next twelve years.

And as Putin, 59, prepares to return to the Kremlin after spending four years as prime minister, almost as many uncertainties surround him today as they did when the question “Who is Mr. Putin?” was first posed all those years ago.

Survivor and Secrecy

Born in 1952 in the Soviet Union’s northern port and pre-Bolshevik Revolution capital of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Putin was, as he himself admitted in the biography “First Person,” a childhood “hooligan.” 

His instinct for survival, which would serve him well in the years to come, may have been inherited from his paternal grandfather, Spiridon Putin, a cook for both Lenin and, later, Stalin.

“Not many people who were around Stalin all the time managed to escape unscathed,” Putin said shortly after becoming president. “But my grandfather did.”

After university, Putin joined the KGB, fulfilling in the process a childhood dream born of Soviet-era films that glamorized the world of the socialist secret agent, performing what he has called “ordinary intelligence” work in Dresden, East Germany – his only foreign posting.

It was while he was in East Germany that the Soviet Union began to come apart at the seams, Communist Party leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms triggering what Putin would later describe as the “greatest geo-political catastrophe of the century.”

Upon his return to Russia, Putin found work in what was now St. Petersburg with one of his previous law lecturers, city mayor Anatoly Sobchak. As president, Putin would draw on the friendships and acquaintances he made at City Hall when appointing senior officials, with fellow St Petersburgers such as future Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin and – most famously of all – his hand-picked Kremlin successor Dmitry Medvedev, following him to Moscow.

In 1996, Putin was brought into the Kremlin as deputy head of the property management department and rose quickly through the ranks before being appointed FSB chief in July 1998. He would remain Russia’s security supremo until Yeltsin named him prime minister a year later.

But Russians say “there is no such thing as a former KGB agent” and analysts believe Putin’s time in the security services irrevocably shaped his world view.

“He doesn’t believe that people can act independently, that they are all agents of someone or another,” Moscow-based security analyst Andrei Soldatov said he added. “This suspicious approach was most likely formed during his time in the KGB.”

Securing Power

Putin’s sudden ascent to power was sealed at the March 2000 presidential polls, when he gained just over fifty percent of the vote. Initial low approval ratings had risen after he oversaw the return of Russian forces to Chechnya in September 1999, which had enjoyed a semi-autonomy since the end of the first conflict there three years previously.

But a series of apartment explosions in Moscow and other cities, blamed on but never claimed by Chechen militants, in the autumn of 1999 had left over 300 dead and boosted support for another war in the North Caucasus.

“We will waste them in the outhouse,” Putin said of Chechen separatists, the first in a series of earthy remarks that would cement his image as a tough-talking, tough-acting leader.

Secure in the Kremlin, Putin spent the subsequent years consolidating his power, neutering the mass media, in particular national television. His critics also maintain that he has removed serious political rivals by underhand means, with supporters of former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky alleging that the ex-Yukos CEO was jailed on trumped up fraud charges for financing support for Russia’s opposition. Putin has denied the accusation, saying “a thief belongs behind bars” and insists he has had no personal involvement in the case.

“He’s consistently eviscerated all other centers of power," said analyst Masha Lipman at the Moscow Carnegie Center think-tank. “He’s suppressed and or taken under his control parliament, political parties, regional governors, big business and major media. Plus he’s effectively secured the political arena from any other unwanted players.”

But Putin said actions like the scrapping of direct elections for regional governors were aimed at strengthening security and halting Russia’s “epidemic of collapse,” which he partially blamed for the horrors of the 2004 Beslan school siege in the North Caucasus. The siege, which ended when special forces stormed the building where Chechen militants were holding over 1,000 people hostage, claimed the lives of 334 people, more than half of them children.

World Stage

Putin was, as the Kremlin frequently reminded the international community in subsequent years, the first world leader to call the White House to express his condolences after the 9/11 attacks in the United States. And when Washington responded to that assault by launching a war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, Putin readily gave his blessing to the stationing of NATO troops in former Soviet Central Asian republics that Russia considered part of its own “sphere” and where Russian troops were also based.

But relations would not remain as warm for long. With oil prices sky-high, Putin oversaw the perceived restoration of Russia’s global standing, with Moscow regularly defying the West over what Putin would dub at a famous speech in Munich in 2007 “the uncontained hyper-use of military force in international relations.”

Putin’s nod to mainly US military forces moving into Central Asia was followed soon thereafter – and unexpectedly, Russia says – by formal NATO enlargement to include Moscow’s previous allies in eastern Europe. And the so-called color revolutions that swept through the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia in 2003-2004 also did much to increase Putin’s antipathy toward Western powers, whose hand he saw behind the uprisings.

Last December, Putin said Washington had encouraged the protests that followed that month’s disputed parliamentary polls in Russia. "We will never let others impose their will on us," he said. He has also regularly expressed scorn for opposition activists calling them in 2007 “jackals” who “count on the support of foreign funds and governments, but not the support of their own people.”

“Putin is not generally well-disposed to the US. He is always touchy and distrustful on relations,” said Fiona Hill, director of the Centre on the United States and Europe at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. “Forging a relationship with Putin will be difficult for [US President Barack] Obama, as well as for whoever else might come next in the US presidency.”

But while Putin has been vilified in the West, his stance on what he has called a US “cult of violence” has won him plaudits elsewhere.

“Russia has been at the forefront of quarrelling with Western ambitions…and for this Putin has been heralded by Indians, Arabs and the Chinese,” said Alexander Rahr, director of the Berlin-based Berthold Beitz Center for Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Central Asia.

“There has also been a demonization of Putin in the West because he has been building a strong Russia,” he added. “They want Russia to become integrated with the West, but only as a junior partner – they are not prepared to accept it on its own terms, and as a country with its own traditions.”

Stability and New Demands

“Russians have had no sense of stability for the past ten years,” Putin told state television in a wide-ranging interview less than two months after taking over from Yeltsin. “We hope to return this feeling.”

And it is this “stability” that Putin and his supporters have trumpeted as one of, if not the, major achievements of his reign, contrasting it favorably with what has become known here as the “wild 1990s.”

“Putin stabilized the country and he gave the people back some dignity,” said Rahr. “There have also been economic improvements in Russia during his rule.”

Despite Putin’s pledge in that debut New Year Eve’s speech to protect “The freedom of speech, the freedom of conscience, the freedom of the media and property rights,” however, Russians in the 2000s entered into an unspoken agreement with the Kremlin to exchange active engagement in shaping the country’ political agenda for material comforts. But as the nascent middle class began to enjoy the fruits of the deal, a fundamental change came about.

“It’s obvious that, yes, Putin brought stability. He ended the war in Chechnya, put a stop to the widespread street crime of the 1990s and increased the quality of life,” explained analyst Sergey Mikheyev of the Moscow-based Center for Political Assessment.

“But all this led to a different set of demands,” he added. “If in the 1990s, people were simply concerned with what they were going to eat, now they want to enjoy the kind of lives they see that people in Europe and the US lead.”

Many here, though, see no viable alternative to the man who has ruled Russia in one form or another since 2000 and fear for the immediate future of the country if the protest slogan of “Russia without Putin!” is realized.

“Right now, Russia’s political system is structured in such as way that there really is no alternative to Putin,” said Savlin. “I don’t see any other options but the return of Putin to the Kremlin.”

“If he were to satisfy opposition demands for him to step down, Russia would be faced with real chaos,” he added.

Popularity and Protests

After the frequently inebriated Yeltsin, the inauguration of the teetotaler, straight-speaking Putin as president in May 2000 was welcomed by the vast majority of Russians.

Putin was also lauded at home for returning a sense of national pride to a former superpower traumatized by Yeltsin-era poverty and impotence in the international arena.

His ratings soaring, Putin faced almost no opposition when he successfully ran for re-election in 2004, with the leaders of major opposition parties all deciding a challenge was senseless. Putin was re-elected with a landslide, gaining almost 72 percent of the vote.

But as the end of his second term of office approached, Putin was compelled to leave the Kremlin by the Constitution, which stated that no president could serve more than “two, consecutive terms.” Amid speculation that he would seek to amend Russia’s basic law to allow him to stand again, Putin confounded the experts by announcing that he would back First Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev to succeed him.

Medvedev’s victory assured by his powerful patron, Putin accepted the new president’s proposal to become prime minister after the March 2008 polls. But there was little doubt, neither at home nor abroad, that Putin was the dominant partner in the ruling tandem, and he was memorably described as “Batman to Medvedev’s Robin” in a leaked US embassy memo in 2011.

He also remained its most popular, with few indications of public dissent until he attended a no-holds barred bout featuring Russian heavyweight champion Fedor Emelianenko in Moscow in the autumn of 2011. The fight came just two months after Medvedev and Putin had announced that they would seek to swap jobs after the March 4 presidential polls, a move that alienated many urban, educated Russians.

Still, it was the kind of event Putin should have been in his element at, yet another chance to bolster his tough guy image and demonstrate his pride at Russian victory. But as he began to speak, to laud Emelianenko’s triumph over his American opponent, the catcalls and booing began. Putin paused for a moment before raising his voice to continue.

State television later edited out the jeers and Putin supporters claimed the booing had been directed at the losing U.S. fighter. But whatever the truth, video of the incident went viral on the Russian internet and emboldened Putin’s opponents. Alexei Navalny, the blogger and opposition activist who would soon become the most visible thorn in Putin’s side, called it “the end of an era.”

But it was the December 2011 parliamentary elections that triggered the largest demonstrations against Putin’s rule, as tens of thousands of people packed downtown Moscow on four separate occasions in the months that followed to demand fair elections and, increasingly, the removal of Putin himself.

“Putin is in a Catch-22 situation,” said Fraser Cameron, director of the Brussels-based EU-Russia think-tank. “Basically Russia has to change at some point. But if he opens up the system, his whole power structure that he has built up will be in jeopardy and he could fall.”

“But if he doesn’t open up, there will be more demonstrations, which could be quite bloody at some point, and that could also lead to his downfall,” he added.

Change to Survive?

And even among those who praise Putin’s achievements during his twelve years in power, there is an awareness that he “must change” to survive.

“Putin stabilized the country and he gave the people back some dignity,” said German analyst Rahr. “But the Russian people have changed a lot since 2000 and he needs to change as well.”

“I think it’s more likely he will remain in power for six years, but even these six years will be the most difficult for him,” he added. ‘The Russian people don’t want to see democracy as a farce and if Putin wants to remain the national leader, he must understand this.”

But, analysts say, there is little indication that Putin is prepared to make these changes.

“Putin now seems to see himself almost as the embodiment of the state,” said Fiona Hill, director of the Centre on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution. “He is running for president purely on the basis of his personal achievements, attributes and popularity, and how Russia has progressed under him.”

Putin and his supporters have responded in kind to the unprecedented protests that have rocked Moscow and other cities, staging mass counter rallies across the country. But critics have claimed that government employees have been coerced into attending these superbly orchestrated shows of support. Putin has admitted this may have been true in some cases, but said the effect on numbers should not be “exaggerated.”

But the man who has - for better or for worse - come to represent modern Russia was in typically defiant mood at a mass rally at a Moscow stadium in late February.

“The battle for Russia goes on!” he told the crowd at the cavernous Luzhniki sports arena. As Putin strode off the stage, the crowd responded with sustained cheers. The opposition later claimed the applause had been pre-recorded. It was a controversy that neatly encapsulated the increasingly heated debate around Putin’s tenure as Russia’s leader.


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